Asia seeks first football gold
© AFP

No Asian team has won the football gold medal since the sport was included in the Olympics 100 years ago, and barring an upset they will struggle to break through in Beijing.

Regional sides have had some success over the years, with Japan taking the bronze in 1968 in Mexico City, when they beat the host nation 2-0 in the play-off match.

And on three occasions Asian teams have finished in fourth place: India in 1956 in Melbourne, Australia in 1992 at Barcelona (they were then affiliated with Oceania rather than Asia), and Iraq four years ago in Athens. But the ultimate prize has eluded Asia.

Once again, traditional heavyweights Japan, Korea Republic, and Australia are in the draw after coming through qualifying while China go in as hosts.

China is in a group with Belgium, New Zealand and one of the favourites Brazil, although the South American giants are without star midfielder Kaka after AC Milan refused to release him. "Though Brazil are hot favourites to take out the group and are also the title favourites, I still hope we can cause some trouble," insists China coach Ratomir Dujkovic. "We are playing at home and though we respect Brazil, we will not give up." The top two from each group progress to the quarter-finals.

One billion reasons to succeed
More than one billion people will be expecting China to shine, but the signs are not promising following the U-23 team's performance in the East Asian championships in February, when they finished behind Japan and Korea Republic.

It led to calls for Chinese Football Association vice president Xie Yalong to be sacked, and his position could be under threat once again should they fail next month.

Japan is regarded as Asia's strongest team, with coach Yasuharu Sorimachi at the helm. But the Japanese will be missing influential Celtic star Shunsuke Nakamura, who is needed for the start of the Scottish season. Similarly, the South Koreans are without Manchester United's Park Ji-Sung.

Australia's men have never missed an Olympics since football was opened to professionals in 1988, and the Olyroos showed their mettle by coming through a tough final qualifying campaign against Iraq, North Korea and Lebanon.

We have history
Coach Graham Arnold, who led the senior team at last year's AFC Asian Cup finals, believes his side can emulate its performance in Athens when the Olyroos went beyond the group stage. "We know we can get through this group, we have history and also we have had such a tough schedule just to make it this far, which will hold us in good stead," he said. "Playing in Asia has taught us a lot about the conditions we will face in China, and that could also give us an advantage."

The Australians are grouped with defending champions Argentina, Olympic newcomers Côte d'Ivoire and European qualifiers Serbia.

While age restrictions apply for the men, no such rules are in place for women, meaning top quality teams will be in action. Since the introduction of women's football to the Olympics in 1996, the USA women have won gold twice, and Norway once.

The Americans will be a threat once again but Korea DPR and China made the quarter-finals of the World Cup last year. Japan are Asia's other representative.